CODY — Charlie Sands, of Jackson, was visiting Thursday to do a little furniture shopping, but he knew he was in trouble when he saw an end table sell for nearly $11,000.
In town for the Cody Old West Auction, Sands wanted to pick up an original Thomas Molesworth end table. But he dropped out of the bidding at around $6,000.
"I really didn't want to go over $5,000, so I'm not sad I lost," said Sands. "I heard there were some heavy hitters here, so obviously some fat cat spent $10,000 on it the way you or I would spend $1."
On a day when an oil painting fetched around $50,000 and a saddle sold for close to $90,000, everyone had his own idea of what a "heavy hitter" was.
But it's safe to say folks spent plenty of money on chaps, spurs, art, furniture, guns and other Western artifacts during the popular auction, now in its 17th year and started by Brian Lebel, formerly of Cody.
Sands said he owned a few pieces by Molesworth, the acclaimed Cody designer whose work from the 1930s is highly prized by collectors.
"The rest of the Molesworths will go for even more," Sands predicted with a grimace. "Whoever bought that first piece is going to want to finish out a set. If this is any indication, I'm going away empty-handed."
Bob Nelson, the owner of Manitou Galleries in Cheyenne and Santa Fe, was keeping an eye on the auction Thursday, and will be showing pieces today and Saturday at the Riley Arena as part of a companion show to the auction.
Prices for Western collectibles have been climbing for years, said Nelson, and are booming lately thanks to what he said was an infusion of Texas oil money into an already hot market.
"They've been going up ever since I was a kid, and I'm an old guy," he said. "Fine Western art is very collectible, and a good investment."
Some of those at the show were wealthy homeowners looking for decorative items, said Nelson, but many were dealers and others were collectors.
"But a lot of the dealers are also collectors. I've got 4,600 pieces myself," he said. "Collecting is an addiction."
And with many of the items being rare or one-of-a-kind — like a field belt and sash that may have been owned by Lt. Col. George A. Custer — feeding that addiction proved a pricey habit.
Doug Jennings, a tax attorney from Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., paid around $90,000 for a saddle that was expected to fetch between $25,000 and $40,000.
Jennings said he would include the near-mint condition Edward Bohlin-made parade saddle in a private, 3,500-square-foot museum under construction at his California home.
"I just love the purity of the cowboy image," said Jennings. "I respect what they do. I wanted to be a rancher for a while, and even worked on a ranch once when I was 15. But it was hard work."
Others at the auction found even some of the relatively affordable items still well beyond reach.
"We looked through the catalog at the beginning of the day and picked out a few things that caught our eye," said Ray Nelius who had come with his wife from Utah to vacation in Cody and check out the auction.
But by the end of the day, with prices on most items higher than they had anticipated, Nelius said he and his wife considered themselves spectators, rather than prospective buyers.
"It's been an education," he said. "That's for sure."
Contact Ruffin Prevost at email@example.com or (307) 527-7250.